Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Education Businesses The Almighty Buck News

Publisher of Free Textbooks Says It Will Now Charge For Them, Instead 156

Posted by timothy
from the get-with-the-times dept.
An anonymous reader writes "In a surprising blow to the movement to create free textbooks online, an upstart company called Flat World Knowledge is dumping its freemium model. The upstart publisher had made its textbooks free online and charged for print versions or related study guides, but company officials now say that isn't bringing in enough money to work long-term."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Publisher of Free Textbooks Says It Will Now Charge For Them, Instead

Comments Filter:
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 05, 2012 @05:19AM (#41878443)
    Once you get kicked out of your moms house, you need a real business model. Free doesn't always work.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Neither, apparently, did you.

      "Free doesn't always work". You say this and this implies that sometimes it does work. Indeed we have several cases of it working very well indeed. That implies that "Free" IS a business case. Indeed, since 90% of all new ventures fail, that a majority of cases of a busniness case fail is no reason to claim it isn't a business model.

      Therefore the opener "you need a real business model" is even under your auspices a load of bollocks: FREE IS A BUSINESS MODEL.

      That you then have to

      • by aurispector (530273) on Monday November 05, 2012 @08:36AM (#41879231)

        "Lack of revenue" is NEVER a business model.

        • by Kergan (780543)

          "Lack of revenue" is NEVER a business model.

          Unless you're just aiming for eyeballs and a quick sellout, like YouTube or Instagram.

          • YouTube does not consider those eyeballs to be it's revenue, it sells and uses that information to get revenue through advertising. YouTube is not an entity all on its own, it's part of a much larger business model.
        • Maybe you're one of the dimwits who modded the OP up.

          Red Hat sell free software. As in you can get it FREE.

          Radiohead sold an album FOR NOTHING. FREE.

          This business is selling books for FREE.

          But all three have revenue.

          Red Hat: You can buy the software too. And pay for support.

          Radiohead: You can buy the tracks too. And buy special premium content (CDs at the very least).

          This business: You can buy the books too. And buy special premium content (Print books at the very least).

          • by bws111 (1216812) on Monday November 05, 2012 @10:02AM (#41879801)

            Red Hat does not sell software, they sell support. Software needs support because it is complex and buggy. Books, not so much. Because Red Hat makes enough money selling support (and much of the software is created by others anyway), they can afford to give away unsupported software. That does not prove 'free' is a viable business model.

            Radiohead made a ton of money selling albums the traditional way. The fact that they can afford to give one away for free is no more proof that 'free' is a viable business model than anyone else donating their time to something is proof that free is a viable business model.

            • by cdrguru (88047)

              Red Hat has their software with zero motivation to make it better documented, more user friendly or more robust. Every time it fails for a commercial user it is a sales opportunity for them. This is a very perverse incentive for a software company.

              Admittedly, Red Hat's software product is pretty complicated. But they could certainly do better in the user-friendly category.

              Good software with reasonable documentation and few defects doesn't need a support contract. Having the support contracts fund the co

            • by mdfst13 (664665)

              Software needs support because it is complex and buggy. Books, not so much.

              Really? Many textbooks are used by professors at universities and supported quite heavily. I think that the problem that these guys had was that they tried to follow the old model, where textbook writing subsidizes the university professor's salary. A more realistic model is for a group of professors to band together to write a textbook (or rewrite one that is in the public domain). That can work because professors are paid based on prestige (i.e. the university is effectively subsidizing the textbook r

              • Really? Many textbooks are used by professors at universities and supported quite heavily.

                True, but that support is free and aimed at the professor so that they will choose a particular book. This is part of the reason why textbook costs have managed to spiral out of control: those making the decision about which book to use do not pay the financial cost. It is only in recent years that the costs have got so large that us profs have finally started to notice and will quiz the publishers about the cost. However we often find that the cost differences are so small that it makes little difference

            • Actually technically Red Hat _DOES_ sell software. They just provide the source for free, you have to have a support contract to get the pre-compiled binaries from them ( last I checked anyways - I'm a Debian user myself ). Other distros then take the source / patches and compile and distribute for free.

              Again that is last I checked. They may have changed since then, and fedora does not count... that is just BETA testing for stuff they may put in RHES ETC.

          • Radiohead didn't give away any album releases. They sold them online at a price determined by the purchaser. I should know because I bought two of their latest albums to support them (and I'm not even a big fan).
            • Radiohead asked people to donate what they thought the album was worth.

              Free was entirely on the table.

              Radiohead gave their album away. Asking you if you would pay is not making you pay.

      • by crazyjj (2598719) * on Monday November 05, 2012 @11:06AM (#41880481)

        One way or another, you have to have a way to bring in revenue. Even non-profits need, at least, some donations.

        So, yes, "free" is possible. But "free without any other adequate source of revenue" is not. And it sounds like their plans to sell hardcopies for revenue simply wasn't producing adequate revenue.

    • by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Monday November 05, 2012 @08:46AM (#41879287)

      Free doesn't always work.

      Non-free doesn't always work either. I have been involved in many businesses as founder, owner, consultant, adviser, etc. Some based on open source/content, some not. One company I was involved in gave the software away and sold t-shirts. That actually worked fairly well. The trick is to find a revenue model that works before you move out of Mom's basement. Remember that Mom isn't just giving you free rent, you are also getting free meals, electricity, laundry service, etc. Those all add up.

    • Is this anything like the 'free as in freedom and not as in beer' textbooks? As in, it's okay to copy the textbooks and redistribute them endlessly, just that the first textbook has to be paid for? Or was it originally planned as a 'free as in beer' textbook, until they discovered that their costs don't get covered?
    • by azav (469988)

      It's "mom's house". If you have more than one mom, then it's "moms' house".

      Your code has to compile, so should your English.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    We've seen this very scenario many times before, e.g. CDDB, change.org, etc.

    • by Darinbob (1142669) on Monday November 05, 2012 @05:48AM (#41878587)

      For over 15 years I've been paying $24/year for a free-for-life email address.

      • by Chrisq (894406) on Monday November 05, 2012 @06:50AM (#41878815)

        For over 15 years I've been paying $24/year for a free-for-life email address.

        eh? who's that with? Seriously you could have your own domain plus email form less

        • by p0p0 (1841106) on Monday November 05, 2012 @08:21AM (#41879145)
          Whoosh, meet Chrisq.
          Chrisq, meet Whoosh.
          • Whoosh, meet Chrisq. Chrisq, meet Whoosh.

            How is this a whoosh? Care to explain this joke, or do you also pay $24/yr for free email?

      • I signed up for an @writeme.com address, which promised to be free-for-life. There are many, many other domains in that stable which also started out 'free-for-life'. That lasted all of about two years, after which they switched to the paid model.

        Needless to say I dumped them immediately. Running my own domain and my own email proved to be about the same price, with the added benefit of many other email addresses, a more personalized address ... and a web server.

        Case closed.

    • I've never heard of Flatworld before and I'm unlikely to in future I reckon. If Baen had done something like this it would have been a blow.

      • by vlm (69642) on Monday November 05, 2012 @08:41AM (#41879253)

        If Baen had done something like this it would have been a blow.

        Yeah, a financial blow for Baen. I've spent fat stacks of cash on books that they'd lured me in with free versions. It helps for series sales to release the first novel, but it REALLY helps to release at least one novel per author, so you get a free preview of what they're like, and then the collecting drive kicks in and the amazon boxes start arriving ...

        It seems there's a substantial psychological hill to climb with non-free publishers "I hate you Fing pirates downloading our books" "Well F you guys I'll buy something from Baen instead if it makes you feel any better" vs "Here's something free you might like. If you like it, there's lots more that's cheap, but not free." "Cool, (VLM whips out credit card)"

        This is not theoretical, Baen is making more money off me than they "should" merely via their marketing gimmick.

  • well, duh (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ip_freely_2000 (577249) on Monday November 05, 2012 @05:22AM (#41878459)
    In a perfect world, everything is free and we have an endless supply of lollipops. I bet it's not even a real hard realization that you need to make money to continue operating. What gets people pissed is when companies take obscene profits -- the catch is that we all can't agree on what obscene means. For me, that means I don't buy Apple or soda at the movie theater. And I look for my textbooks second hand ( I like the margin notes, anyway )
    • Re:well, duh (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Mitreya (579078) <<moc.liamg> <ta> <ayertim>> on Monday November 05, 2012 @05:31AM (#41878491)

      And I look for my textbooks second hand ( I like the margin notes, anyway )

      And the book stores really like you. Ah, I remember it like it was yesterday --

      A new textbook went for $100
      You could return that textbook for $30 (assuming that a new edition did not popup all of the sudden)
      And then you could buy the same used textbook at a steeply discount price of $75-$80.

      I suspect reselling used textbooks is far more lucrative than selling new ones. At least for the bookstores.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward
        The fact is that academic administrators have all but colluded with corporate-owned bookstores. The former take a nice "taste" (3-10%) of bookstore profits to run campus services **off the backs of the students who attend their institutions**. The corporate bookstores do everything they can to frustrate the adoption of open textbooks (85% of college bookstores are owned by a handful of corporations, NOT the colleges). The whole post-secondary educational system is a corrupt money-grab, with college instruc
        • Re:well, duh (Score:5, Interesting)

          by sumdumass (711423) on Monday November 05, 2012 @07:42AM (#41878995) Journal

          The fact is that academic administrators have all but colluded with corporate-owned bookstores.

          And they work school policy to enforce they position too. A lot of schools will hold Grant and loan payment disbursements until after class starts forcing you to buy from the campus store on credit instead of having the options to get the books for 1/10th the price on the internet.

      • by chrismcb (983081)
        If you assume 100% markup, then the bookstore pays $50 for a new book, and sells it for $100. Profit = $50. Probably with a way to return purchased books to the publisher.
        Based on your numbers, they'll buy the used book for $30, and sell it for $75-$80 with no way to recoup cost if they aren't purchased (although they probably sell to a wholesaler or something) Profit = $45-$50
        Looks like New books are more lucrative for the bookstores. Based on your numbers anyways/
        • by Rogerborg (306625)

          If you assume 100% markup

          ...then you probably shouldn't be commenting in a discussion with grown ups.

          • by Anonymous Coward

            Or perhaps he's been an actual professional author and knows the inner workings of the business. The 100% markup is standard for mainline book stores, as any author who reads his royalty statements rapidly learns! And the royalty is calculated from the publisher's net, not the book store's gross...

        • by sjbe (173966) on Monday November 05, 2012 @09:22AM (#41879533)

          If you assume 100% markup, then the bookstore pays $50 for a new book, and sells it for $100. Profit = $50.

          You are roughly correct for the gross margins but the net profit is nowhere near $50 in your example. (Rent, utilities, staff salaries, etc) Net profit will be quite a lot lower, probably in single digits to low teens usually if the company is profitable.

          Probably with a way to return purchased books to the publisher.

          Virtually all new books are sold on consignment. There are a handful of very large distributors in the book industry. They sell to bookstores including Barnes & Noble as well as your school book store. Some bigger sellers like Amazon can go direct but not many others can. New books are sold on consignment with 90 day terms meaning if they don't sell within 90 days they are returned to the publisher. Realistically 90 day terms really means 120 day terms because the distributors have 90 days from the book store and then 30 more days for themselves so the publisher gets paid at best 120 days after shipping a book that there is a good chance will be returned to them unsold. Publishing books is a terrible business to be in from a cash flow standpoint.

          Based on your numbers, they'll buy the used book for $30, and sell it for $75-$80 with no way to recoup cost if they aren't purchased (although they probably sell to a wholesaler or something) Profit = $45-$50

          There are secondary market options for used books that cannot be sold locally. Not hugely lucrative but they are significantly better than zero. The buyers of used books have some databases which tell them they should pay $30 for Book A and $5 for Book B and shouldn't buy Book C based on what they can sell it for elsewhere. They don't just buy books blindly for a flat fee. (or if they do they are stupid)

          • If you assume 100% markup, then the bookstore pays $50 for a new book, and sells it for $100. Profit = $50.

            You are roughly correct for the gross margins but the net profit is nowhere near $50 in your example. (Rent, utilities, staff salaries, etc) Net profit will be quite a lot lower, probably in single digits to low teens usually if the company is profitable.

            Yes, correct -- it's the net profit, not the gross.

            However, the exact same net/gross difference applies for the second-hand one. His point was that they do still make more on the new book than the second one.

            • However, the exact same net/gross difference applies for the second-hand one. His point was that they do still make more on the new book than the second one.

              Not necessarily. First issue is that it depends very much on what price they can buy the used book. That amount varies rather significantly and you really can't just assume it is $30 a book. Given how easy it is to get steeply discounted used books through Amazon etc, odds are a bookstore can buy the book for significantly less than that. Second issue is how much of a discount they have to give to sell a used book instead of a new book. In his made up example the numbers work out in favor of new books

              • But unlike new books, used books can't be bought on sale-or-return... (No, it's not a simple matter at all.)
  • Paid access isn't going to work any better at all.
  • by Meneth (872868) on Monday November 05, 2012 @06:05AM (#41878649)
    Time to do a siterip.
  • by ciderbrew (1860166) on Monday November 05, 2012 @06:14AM (#41878689)
    How or when did they expect FREE (with "optional" charges) to start bringing in enough money to work long-term?
    • It's not an unreasonable model - it's essentially the same as all those "freemium" games. The problem is when you don't get enough "mium" to pay for the "free" - and obviously, people were willing to settle for the electronic books without the physical.

      • by wild_quinine (998562) on Monday November 05, 2012 @07:27AM (#41878941) Homepage

        obviously, people were willing to settle for the electronic books without the physical.

        May not even be a case of settling.

        I wrote a novel aimed at a small student community, and released the ebook for free. i wanted it to be a gift, so i made the ebook free (creative commons) and also gave away a lot of physical copies to the people i thought would appreciate them most (within a certain community).

        the really interesting thing is that i got feedback (remember, from people who i was offering the book to for free) that they were really happy to have the ebook version, but they didn't want the physical book version becase it was 'stuff' that they didn't need. they're students, they move around a lot, books aren't that light, plus they don't really have a place they keep 'things' any more, now they've moved out of home, and probably won't for a few years to come.

        now sure, they might not have been interested at all, and been letting me down gently, but it made me realise that there'd need to be more to any future business model i might come up with than 'electronic is free, physical is not'. i know this may seem obvious in retrospect, but i think there's still an assumption held by many people that physical copy = upgrade of electronic copy, and this may not be true.

        i'm sure many people on slashdot feel that way already, but mostly i would expect for functional/practical reasons. however, my experience suggests that the sentimental value of a physical book may no longer exceed the value of the ebook, either.

        that could be the seeds of an interesting change in our perception of books altogether.

        • by ledow (319597)

          Each time I've moved house I've taken dozens of boxes of books. In terms of efficiency they are the worst possession I own because they take up lots of space, lots of weight, need specialist storage in the house (bookshelves, etc.) and I rarely refer to them.

          And that's *with* myself only keeping books that I have some sort of attachment to. In terms of books for university, I had one throughout my entire BSc. And that was because it was marked as compulsory AND exercises were set from it AND lectures wer

          • by mark-t (151149) <[markt] [at] [lynx.bc.ca]> on Monday November 05, 2012 @09:05AM (#41879405) Journal

            But reading reference books on a kindle sucks, where one is often needing to quickly flip to different parts of the book that may not be connected by actual hyperlinks within it, or if you are searching for a particular full-page picture.

            If actually reading anything but fiction on an electronic device was just as convenient as reading a physical book, where you can flip forward or backward an arbitrary number of pages entirely at your own discretion, it might replace them. Not before.

            • by Anonymous Coward

              E-book readers suck for non-narrative text in general. The standard e-book screen is about the size of a paperback book. Which to my mind makes it virtually impossible to have both a graph/table/chart/picture AND the text to explain it visible at the same time. Full size (10") tablets are probably big enough, but need better navigation as you suggest.

              • by mark-t (151149)

                Personally, I find that even 10" readers aren't quite large enough, actually (although admittedly, they come pretty close).

                What would be much better, IMO, is a full A4-sized or letter-sized display for a reader (which would be a 14" diagonal). While probably unnecessarily large for strictly narrative reading, it'd be an ideal size for textbooks and other reference material.

                All it would need after that are flicker-free fast page refresh times (where you cannot perceive the time it takes to switch page

        • by vlm (69642)

          I wrote a novel aimed at a small student community

          there'd need to be more to any future business model i might come up with than 'electronic is free, physical is not'.

          The market for small honorariums is pretty much dead, which is too bad. The $5000+expenses model is healthy, as is the "just show up for free" model. Someone could make a shitload of money on the internet as a facilitator of middle size honorariums as a business model. Its dead enough I've never even heard of an online facilitator for it... it might technically be alive but only in Paris and only with 10 speakers or something.

        • by Legion303 (97901)

          Perhaps in the 21st century the model should be "physical is free, electronic is not."

      • by nhat11 (1608159)

        Close, in a F2P game, the devs can create whatever random content they want, like a hat or a shoe or people pay for power. For textbooks... that doesn't work as well lol

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Yes, that's almost as stupid as a free website that posts news, perhaps with some sort of comment and moderation system. Could never work.

      • It would be except Dice Holdings, Inc.do make money from other things like job listsing and they also have SourceForge, Freecode and Geeknet. Just being a news site may not be enough these days to cut it.
    • Since 90% of online based businesses are based on that exact same model.

  • You know, if Google wants to "do some good", and maybe "buy some karma", they could extend some of those fat stacks - along with, maybe, you know, iTunesU Apple - and buy the best-of-breed textbooks in the classics and STEM - basic physics; calculus; english; trig; algebra; biology; chemistry, organic, and inorganic; and then make the source materials for the book available online for peer reviewed update and analysis.

    The collective good done to humanity may be beyond measure.

    Seriously. The amount of funds

    • BitTorrent has already done this.
      • by vlm (69642)

        BitTorrent has already done this.

        online for peer reviewed update and analysis.

        Not seeing how the two connect in any way?

        Now wikipedia is pretty much doing this today, the only real threat is the deletionist a-holes. I "really learned" (as opposed to memorized temporarily in school and promptly forgot) quaternions from the wikipedia article. I just checked and its not been deleted (yet) and its different than when I read it, but not any worse at least.

        The deletionist a-holes might someday wipe the article from wikipedia just to feel joy in others pain, but mathworld probably would n

  • Not charging money doesn't bring in any money.

    More at 11.

  • were already apparent back in the dot-com days. I guess people never quite learn. Other than that, what we are seeing here is a company doing what is natural; adapting and changing its business model to stay afloat. Move along, nothing to be seen here.
  • by Rogerborg (306625) on Monday November 05, 2012 @09:02AM (#41879379) Homepage

    Charge for the errata and addenda.

    Hey, Star Fleet Battles (old school shout out) was printed with ring-binder holes for easy re-arrangement when they completed and corrected it, and they once published errata for an addenda.

  • Perhaps their popularity and content quality are the main reason of their crisis, not the business model?

  • I fully understand the naïvety of my Martin Luther King -ish rant, but damn it, it doesn't hurt to dream.

    I have this idea, that maybe, one day, when I start earning money and am done with my debts, I will start a charity (or a kick-starter, as it's called now).

    You see, I have this idea, possibly naïve, that I will use the funds to outright buy quality textbook rights, or have them written under a patronage system by noted authors, and release those books to the public for free.

    I fully realise the

  • Screw the bastards into the ground.

    • by Ash-Fox (726320)

      Screw the bastards into the ground.

      Why? They tried one business model and it seems to be insufficient to sustain their business, so they're trying something else. I'm not understanding how what they're doing deserves screwing "the bastards into the ground"?

      • by nurb432 (527695)

        Free information, or bankruptcy. I dont belive in a middle ground.

        If they want to sell dead tree versions, i can go along with that ( a VAR type of concept ) but the underlying data should be freely distributed.

        • by Ash-Fox (726320)

          Free information, or bankruptcy. I dont belive in a middle ground.

          So what you're saying is, have a short time of existence and then go to barely affordable information again (since they won't exist to offer affordable information).

          If they want to sell dead tree versions, i can go along with that ( a VAR type of concept ) but the underlying data should be freely distributed.

          I don't believe they even have the copyright to allow unlimited redistribution outside of distributing it themselves.

  • giving something for free doesn't make enough money? WOW what an incite....
  • There are hundreds of free college textbooks out there on the web -- see my sig for a catalog.

    There are basically two models that have been proved to work. (1) Do it yourself. (2) Set up nonprofit online collaborations so people can cooperate on producing high-quality free books.

    #1 is actually the most successful model by far. Just do it. Bite the bullet. Write the damn book and put it online for free. Here are some very high quality examples of DIY textbook projects: Hefferon, Linear Algebra [smcvt.edu], Carroll, Lect [arxiv.org]

I'm a Lisp variable -- bind me!

Working...